* Note: This is the new e-book version. No more copies of the printed edition are available.
The Kirkus Review, which appears ahead of publication to inform the book trade, had this to say:
“In this affecting travel memoir, Simon pursues both a component of his own history and a vision of post-Soviet Europe circa 1994. Reared in wartime England, Simon decided to check out eastern Europe, the one area of the world he had not traveled. He knew virtually nothing about his estranged father’s background other than that he was a Romanian Jew who emigrated to London as a young man. . . . The result, this book, is lush with personality and anecdote on subjects ranging from the author’s shrewd reading of the nature of life behind the now vanished Iron Curtain, to Eastern European youth’s “tangible sense of self-worth” in the face of drastic economic decline and hardship.
When, with luck, he finds in the town of Botosani, in Romania, the original record of his father’s birth, he notes that “the handwritten page had for me something of the quality of . . . a piece of clothing that a loved person might have left behind.”
‘Simon is a connoisseur of travel and travel writing, and his story shines with an understated brilliance. He weaves a vibrant, detailed tapestry of character and experience; his discoveries are manifold.’
Here is an extract, introducing . . .
THE COLONEL’S WIFE
I had been walking for two and a half hours when the asphalt road turned to cobble stones. Soon after, I saw a rusty enamelled plaque that read “TANKODROM”. Then I heard male voices singing, like a massed choir. Another sign told me that I was entering Kornevo. Through bushes on my left I saw a parade ground and barracks and then the upper stories of some apartment blocks above the trees. The road led on past them, but looking ahead I could see no other buildings anywhere.
Volodya had scrawled an address into my notebook, and I dug it out and looked at it. It was in Russian, but easy enough to read. First came the district, “Kaliningradskaya Oblast”, and a postal code number. Then he had written “Bagrationovski P-H”. Bagration, a name hard to read without a smile, was the nearest biggish town. It was where I would have to cross the border. After that came “p/o Kornevo 1” and then some numbers. “D 11 KV 64”, and finally a name, “Fursov Vova”.
There was no street address. The numbers, I guessed, referred to buildings and apartments. It seemed to me quite possible that the buildings I was looking at were the full extent of Kornevo, and I turned in off the road to ask. I had never examined my expectations, but it was clear to me as I looked around that I had not been expecting this. Perhaps my own distant experience of the military had surfaced from my subconscious to tell me to look for guard posts, signs with meaningless acronyms painted on them, pole barriers, swept paths, uniforms of course, and maybe even some of the bullshit stuff that I used to resent so much, like whitewashed kerbstones and fire hydrants polished with Brasso. At the very least I thought there would be some sense of order and superficial cleanliness, things marked out, painted and dusted off. After all, the border guards had been smart enough, and so had the harried naval officers of Kaliningrad.
There was none of that, not any of it. I looked around me in dismay at a scene of desolation. There were two rows of apartment blocks, four or five stories, I think, facing each other. Once, no doubt, they had been white. On the architect’s drawing, if there had ever been such a thing, they might have looked neat. Not pretty, or distinguished or intriguing in any way, but at least neat. Now they were in a state of collapse with filthy, peeling walls and crumbling steps. Only the glass in the windows and, in some cases, the curtains behind the glass, indicated that they were inhabited. The ground between the buildings was a wasteland, all the worse because there had obviously at one time been flowerbeds, grass, paths, and playground facilities of some kind. If I had been visiting some run-down council estate in a depressed part of England, or a housing project in Chicago I would have thought it bad enough. That it should be a military establishment seemed inconceivable.
I wondered if I was in the wrong place entirely. If these really were military quarters, they must be for the lower ranks. But where did the officers have their quarters? There were no uniformed personnel in sight, but an elderly woman in a headscarf and coat came along the side of the buildings. I said “Dobre dan”. She answered with a smile. I showed her the address in my notebook and she became very animated.
“Da, da” she said. “Moment, moment,” pointing back to where she had come from, and from the other sounds she made I gathered that someone was about to arrive. Round the corner came another woman, younger but also well wrapped, hurrying along with a shopping bag. She began smiling too as she approached, and since she seemed to know who I was, I guessed that she must be Volodya’s mother. It had worried me a bit that I had turned up so early in the morning. . . . . but she seemed delighted to see me. She reached out immediately to relieve me of my pack which was on the ground, and I had to grab it to stop her carrying it off. She made happy, inviting noises and led me up some dilapidated steps to a horribly scarred and battered wooden door, which she heaved open.
I had hardly absorbed the thought that she must, after all, live here when the smell of the staircase hit me. The dominant aroma, I suppose, was of cat’s pee, aged and reduced to its essence, but there were other, darker ingredients too which I associated with our own species, and it required a triumph of the will on my part not to hold on to my nose. As we tramped up the filthy cement steps to the third floor, my astonishment was complete. I couldn’t grasp the experience.
In this stinking slum tenement building lived the commanding officer of a tank regiment in the army of a super-power. His wife, obviously a very nice woman, with good manners, was somehow completely oblivious to the smell. The colonel himself, I presumed, walked up and down these stairs several times a day. Even if he couldn’t get whitewash for the kerbstones, or brooms to sweep the paths, or paint to touch up the door, surely he could get a couple of men and a few buckets of water to wash down the stairs?
Madame Fursov opened her apartment door and ushered me in, and I experienced a huge sense of relief when I found that the smell had stayed outside. She very soon showed me where the bathroom was, and with a slight blush of apology said something about “voda”. The bath tub was filled with water, and she showed me the bucket I should use to scoop it out. I had been wrong in my judgement. Whether the colonel could get a couple of men or not, was beside the point. There was no water to spare for washing down the stairs. I finally began to appreciate the extent of the emergency.